I must admit, the first time I heard “The Folks Who Live On The Hill”, I was a little underwhelmed.
The first Peggy Lee song I’d knowingly listened to was her very upbeat treatment of “Fever”, which I’d enjoyed. So I was looking forward to more of the same when the radio DJ announced another Peggy Lee track was on the way.
The more sombre hues of “The Folks Who Live On The Hill” stopped me in my tracks a little, and at first I tuned it out. Don’t be too hard on me…I was only a teenager…and listening to Peggy Lee at all when everyone else was listening to the Damned and the Buzzcocks was already something of an act of rebellion on my part.
But in the years since, I’ve come to appreciate what a truly great song “The Folks Who Live On The Hill” really is…even, I’m sorry to say, much better than “Fever” which is what got me interested in Peggy Lee in the first place.
Next time “The Folks Who Live On The Hill” came on the radio, I listened with a different attitude. It was on a programme dedicated to the songs of Jerome Kern…not sung by Peggy Lee, but still the same song with almost exactly the same arrangement and orchestration.
By this point, my musical interests had advanced sufficiently that I recognised Jerome Kern’s name as one of the finest composers of the 20th century. I decided to give the song another chance, especially when the announcer mentioned that its lyrics were by one of my lyric writing heroes, Oscar Hammerstein.
But the delights of “The Folks Who Live On The Hill” weren’t over yet. A couple of weeks later, I heard the song again, this time on a radio show about the works of Nelson Riddle…one of the finest orchestral arrangers of all time, who made his name at Capitol Records with the greatest singers on the roster of that most wonderful of record companies, including Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole.
Nelson Riddle was renowned for his skill in making an orchestra swing…much of the characteristic Sinatra’s “swing” was at least as much down to Nelson Riddle’s masterful arrangements, just as much as it was to Frank Sinatra’s own undoubted vocal talents…but “The Folks Who Live On The Hill” was used in this programme as the counterpoint to the more punchy up-tempo numbers Nelson Riddle is probably more famous for.
And the presenter taught me an important lesson that’s stayed with me to this day…although you might not think so from my rambling introduction to this great song…which is that less can be more.
The talent in the orchestration for “The Folks Who Live On The Hill” is the restraint Nelson Riddle deploys. He doesn’t open the valves full throttle and let the orchestra gallop into the distance…although he showed on other records he was more than capable of doing that.
Instead he used a luscious, but sparse, orchestration to help us connect with the land of “what if?” that lives deep inside us all.
The emotion in the orchestra’s restraint was something we could all feel. It opened up the more wistful side of our natures, but didn’t preoccupy our thoughts by being too busy as that would have distracted us from the deep thinking that needed to be done.
Nelson Riddle might have opened the door, but Peggy Lee led us through it by the hand with her gentle, dreamy, almost hypnotic performance. She leads us like a hypnotherapist through the byways of our minds and helps us connect with the thing we’d been searching for all along…
“The Folks Who Live On The Hill” is about an idealised life. Nowadays we have Instagram for that, but back in 1957, when Peggy Lee recorded the song for her “The Man I Love” album, we made do with songs to lead us to imaginary places where we could be happy and content.
You had to be pretty well-to-do to own a house on a hill, even back in 1957 so the fairy tale lifelong romance which “The Folks Who Live On The Hill” describes wasn’t probably any more common then than it is today. But finding someone who loves us absolutely, someone special to spend the rest of our life with, is no less a goal for every human being on the planet today than it was 60 years ago.
It’s also quite an aspirational song, in the materialistic sense of that word, at a time when everyone in America…or so it seemed…was benefiting from the boom times of the Eisenhower years. Well-paying jobs abounded and a comfortable middle class lifestyle was well within the grasp of anyone prepared to work hard enough.
Oscar Hammerstein described those positive hopes for the future like this…
Someday we’ll build a home
On a hilltop high, you and I
Shiny and new, a cottage that two can fill
And we’ll be pleased to be called
“The folks who live on the hill”
That was the dream in the America of the late 1950s…a nice new house, high on a hill. Being the sort of person others looked up to…both figuratively and literally.
It doesn’t come across so well when the lyrics are written down, but part of Oscar Hammerstein’s genius was the was he worked with Jerome Kern’s musical phrasing to make the “hill” from “hilltop” rhymes with “fill” and the “hill” in the final line of the first verse. There’s also a bit of internal rhyming going on with “new” and “two”.
In the hands of a singer less able than Peggy Lee, this might have been a bit of a stretch, but she sings the words like they were meant to be phrased like that all along.
There’s nothing forced…no gaudy showing off her vocal skills…but Peggy Lee’s understated performance of this exquisite musical phrasing is vastly more impressive than if she’d belted out exactly the same words nestled inside a more up-beat composition.
Although I started out thinking “The Folks Who Live On The Hill” was underwhelming compared to Peggy Lee’s performance of “Fever”, in the years since I first heard both songs, I’ve done a complete 180 on that.
“Fever” is a perfectly decent song. However “The Folks Who Live On The Hill” is one of the most delightful musical treats you could ever hope to discover in a lifetime listening to music.
Perhaps that’s not too surprising given the “dream team” of Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein, Nelson Riddle and Peggy Lee behind it…but even for an array of talents that good, songs like “The Folks Who Live On The Hill” don’t come along all that often.
Our veranda will command a view of meadows green
The sort of view that seems to want to be seen
And when the kids grow up and leave us
We’ll sit and look at the same old view
Just we two
Oscar Hammerstein described a life well lived. Your own home, high on a hill, the joy of raising children together, and then, in your later years, taking the deepest of pleasure in just sharing the company of the person you’ve loved all your life, gazing out together across the valley where you made your life and raised your family.
“The Folks Who Live On The Hill” is a song that’s easy to overlook the first time you hear it. I know that’s what I did all those years ago.
It’s not flashy. It’s not raucous. It doesn’t grab your attention.
You could have it on quietly in the background and hardly notice it.
But, looking back now, I’m glad I caught “The Folks Who Live On The Hill” again a few weeks after my first hearing of it and listened with a different level of understanding than I’d had the first time round.
There’s so much emotion buried in the song’s vocal and musical restraint that I can confidently say it’s one of the most beautiful records ever made at that famous building at 1750 Vine Street in Los Angeles…and with the roster of stars who moved through there in the 1950s and 60s, that’s quite an accolade.
Whatever you’re doing, stop it right now and take the time to listen to this song without any distractions. If you allow yourself to sink gently into this beautiful song, you’ll be giving your soul a treat it will thank you for.
Here’s Peggy Lee singing Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s composition, with orchestration by Nelson Riddle… “The Folks Who Live On The Hill”…
The video is below, but if you prefer you can listen to the track on Spotify here… https://open.spotify.com/track/4Pi9CGvYrL5gSMBjkoshok
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